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In Ukraine, why is Gogol's former home boarded up?

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Julie Masis

(Read caption) The Odessa house where Gogol wrote the second part of 'Dead Souls,' located on Gogol Street, has been unoccupied for years.

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The 19th-century building where Nikolai Gogol wrote the second part of “Dead Souls” – widely considered one of the greatest works of 19th-century Russian literature – is abandoned. The house, located on Gogol Street, has been unoccupied for years. The windows are boarded up, paint peels from the walls, and grass grows on the stairs. A padlock hangs on the front door.  

Only the two memorial plaques on the facade – one in Russian, the other in Ukrainian – inform passersby that “Here, between 1850 and 1851, lived the great Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol.”

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Gogol’s lengthy sojourn in the home was not entirely by choice. Passport problems and bad weather kept him there months longer than he had planned – giving him perhaps more time than he had wanted to wrestle with the second half of “Dead Souls” (a section he later destroyed).

According to Andrey Shelugin, chief of Odessa’s Cultural Heritage Protection Department, the home is privately owned and the city can’t do anything about the state that it is in. “They say, ‘We will do it, but now we have financial problems,’ ” Mr. Shelugin said.

Gogol’s home is hardly the only writer’s house to weather tough times. According to Anne Trubek, author of “A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses,” the homes of favorite authors, turned into tourist sites, are “often obscure, undervisited, quiet, and dark.”

In the United States, for example, the former cottages of Edgar Allan Poe in both Baltimore and the Bronx, a borough in New York City, have suffered from neglect. In Cleveland, Langston Hughes’s home was rescued from destruction at a sheriff’s sale. Even Mark Twain’s historical home in Hartford, Conn, has recently been threatened with closure because of financial woes.

It doesn’t necessarily matter how famous a writer is, says Ms. Trubek. “One can make no sense of why some houses attract more visitors than others, or even why people decide to visit them.”

In Gogol’s case, there is no shortage of museums at his former homes: There are three in Ukraine, one in Moscow, and one in Rome.

Yet despite the other museums, Odessa literature lovers say it’s important to preserve 11 Gogol Street where the great writer once toiled over his master work. “It’s our history; it’s our culture,” said Tatiana Rybnikova, a guide at the Odessa Literary Museum. “A person who doesn’t know his or her history has no future.”

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A longer version of this article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Russian Life magazine.


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